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“Learning Disabled”: The Worst Label Of All

A while back, I wrote a post about the problems with labeling people based on their abilities and behaviors compared to the “norm” – whatever that means. Now, having raised a boy to the age of almost ten who would be clinically diagnosed as ADHD and dyslexic, and having read the book The Gift Of Dyslexia, I want to come back to the issue of labeling kids and hone in on what seems to be the pet label of teachers (including Special Ed. teachers): “learning disabled.”

If our son, B, attended school, he would have received that label probably by the first grade. I say that in full confidence as a veteran school teacher with experience in a variety of grade levels. Let me tell you some things about B, and you be the judge of whether he deserves the dubious title.

B started riding a bike at age three. He has never fallen off. Not once. By the age of seven, he could tell you the difference between reptiles and amphibians, as well as the name of several species under each of those categories. He could name species of insects that you’ve never heard of, and tell you about some of their behaviors.

If you ask him, B could tell you how concrete is made, how to use a level, and give you basic instructions on how to build a wooden box. Give him a list of junk foods and healthy foods intermingled, and he would be able to tell you which ones are not good for you, and why.

He knows how to grow vegetables from seed, and how to care for them once they germinate. He could talk your ear off about a variety of dinosaurs, whose names he’s been able to pronounce since he was six or seven years old.

Read him a book on the level of The Hobbit, and he can answer a variety of comprehension questions related to it – including the higher-level ones. He can also give a fair plot summary of any story that has held his interest.

The school bias

I could go on. Now, tell me, is B learning disabled? If your child has been graced with that label, think about everything she knows. Is the label fair?

Here’s where it comes from: the world for children (who live in Western nations, at least) revolves around reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. A “smart” kid can do those three things well. If he struggles in any of those areas, well, it isn’t politically correct to call somebody “stupid”, so we give them a friendlier label: learning disabled.

Which is a bunch of baloney. Some of the smartest kids have trouble interpreting symbols on paper. (You may have heard of a guy named Albert Einstein.) But because they cannot fit in easily to the school culture and expectations, they cause a problem (like Thomas Edison did). Problem children inevitably receive labels.

So, at least make it an accurate label!

I refuse to call my son “learning disabled.” I only call him “ADHD” because that helps other people understand where he is both behaviorally and educationally. A much more accurate label for him regarding his academic struggles – as well as for many others with ADHD and dyslexia – is “symbol interpretation disabled.” Because that’s where they have trouble: interpreting symbols, namely, letters and (in some cases) numbers. Of course, children with ADHD could be termed as “sitting down for long periods of time disabled” and “controlling emotions disabled.” Two other disabilities that make being holed up in a single room for most of the day, forced to sit at the same desk, very difficult.

But those issues aside, they can learn anything else they are interested with ease, just like any other child.  Just like yours.

Learning disabled, my foot!

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